Open the lab shutters

25th June 2004 at 01:00
Communicating knowledge should be one of the most highly-regarded skills and given its rightful value, writes Denis Murphy

I normally detest new cliches, but I quite like the expression, "thinking outside the box". The trouble is that merely thinking outside our boxes is not enough - we must endeavour to escape from them altogether.

Education and its allied professions are full of boxes. Some of these are of our own making. But there are many more that are carefully designed to keep us confined in nice, tidy, administrative units, just for the convenience of the plethora of bureaucrats, funders, and assessors who seem to plague our lives.

I am a scientist and am privileged to have worked as a researcher in a world-class institute as well as to have taught in schools and lectured at several universities in the UK and overseas. Over the past couple of decades I have noticed a marked increase in the tendency to restrict us to ever narrower boxes, making it more and more difficult to communicate with our colleagues.

Indeed, such "acting outside the box" is implicitly frowned upon by many in our national educational establishment.

Take the example of universities. Thanks to that most pernicious of devices, the research assessment exercise (RAE) academics are classified either as "research active" and allotted extra funding, or are cast into the outer darkness that is teaching.

In the latter case, the individual is widely perceived as a failure with reduced promotion prospects, damaged self-esteem and greater likelihood of impaired motivation and performance.

And so we appear to be fulfilling George Bernard Shaw's famous aphorism:

"He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."

However, lest we take the curmudgeonly old playwright too seriously, remember that Shaw got many things seriously wrong. For example, he was noted for his opposition to the mass public vaccination programmes that have saved so many lives, especially those of our children. I would assert that Shaw's views on the value of teaching are equally egregious and misconceived.

Science involves two processes: the generation and dissemination of knowledge. One reason for the transition from alchemy to modern science in the 16th century was a new readiness to eschew secrecy and to communicate knowledge by lectures, public demonstrations and publications.

A scientist who does not communicate is like a eunuch; they may look good but nothing much will come of it.

I have met many scientific eunuchs in universities and learned research centres and often they have impressive reputations. Such reputations tend to be based on very restricted communication within a tiny, almost sacerdotal, peer group. Try getting such scientists to explain their work to undergraduates, never mind school pupils, and you realise their deep limitations.

By forcing scientists to stay in their little boxes, depending on whether they are teachers or researchers, we are reinforcing and perpetuating these artificial divides.

A few weeks ago I was particularly aggrieved to read that David Sainsbury, the UK science minister, has explicitly ruled out allowing public communication activities by scientists to contribute to their research assessment exercise scores.

The message is clear: stay in your labs, do not work with schools or other public groups or your funding will be jeopardised. So the many fulfilling hours that my colleagues and I spend working with schools in the South Wales Valleys are now deemed to have no value at all in our major method of performance and assessment.

It seems that the eunuchs have won again. We should have stayed in our boxes after all. Maybe we should cast our eyes abroad for a better perspective.

A few years ago, I was invited to a large international congress in Japan to present a plenary lecture on my research. I have visited Japan on several occasions and am used to being addressed as Murphy san - san being the usual male title that corresponds to our Mr. On this occasion, I was introduced as Murphy sensai.

I had heard this term before, but normally only applied to very distinguished people. When I asked what sensai meant, I was told that it was a title of great honour and prestige in Japanese society. A sensai is indeed an exceptional person - for sensai means teacher.

It seems that anybody can do research, but the ability to teach and communicate - now that's something worth getting out of the box for.

Denis Murphy is professor of biotechnology at the University of Glamorgan

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